BPAI Precedential Opinion on Rejecting Software Means Claims

Ex parte Catlinpic-32.jpg (BPAI 2009)(precedential) fd073072.pdf.

The first-time around, the BPAI found some of Catlin’s claims patentable. On rehearing (requested by the SPE), the BPAI reversed course – finding the means-plus-function claims indefinite under 35 USC § 112.

Catlin’s claim one reads as follows:

1. A method for implementing an on-line incentive system, said method comprising the steps of:
providing, at a merchant’s web site, means for a consumer to participate in an earning activity to earn value from a merchant; and
transferring value from said merchant to said consumer for participation in said earning activity, if said consumer qualifies, without re-directing said consumer away from said merchant’s web site, whereby said consumer’s focus of activity remains at said merchant’s web site.

The Patent Act allows a patentee to claim inventive elements using “means plus function” language. A means plus function term is construed to cover the corresponding structures as described in the specification as well as any equivalents. This rule of construction means that seemingly broadly written means limitations are often quite limited in practice — especially when the specification is not thoroughly drafted.

If no corresponding structure can be identified in the disclosure, then the claim will be found “invalid as indefinite.”

Here, the claim recites a “means for a consumer to participate in an earning activity to earn value from a merchant.” On rehearing, the BPAI could not find any corresponding structure in the specification. In particular, the Board was looking for an algorithm for performing the claimed function.

[W]e have thoroughly reviewed the Appellants’ Specification and have not been able to locate an adequate disclosure of structure, material, or acts corresponding to the functions of allowing a consumer to participate in an earning activity and earn value from an earning activity. In particular, the Specification does not disclose any specific algorithm that could be implemented on a general purpose computer to allow a consumer to participate in an earning activity and earn value from an earning activity.

Holding: Claims indefinite.

BPAI Precedential Opinion: The Nexus for Obviousness and Nonobviousness

Ex parte Jellá (BPAI Precedential Opinion) fd081619-1.pdfpic-30.jpg

Most modern metal garage doors have four or five panel sections. The older wooden doors often had only one panel. Jella’s invention is simple — have three panels each “substantially twenty-eight inches” in hight. The prior art taught “any number” of panels including one, four, five, or six. Following the examiner’s lead, the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI) found the invention obvious.

The BPAI issued a precedential opinion focusing on obviousness. The prima facie case of obviousness is easy under KSR even without any evidence that anyone had previously considered a twenty-eight inch door.

The Court in KSR noted that “[wlhen a work is available in one field of endeavor, design incentives and other market forces can prompt variations of it, either in the same field or a different one. If a person of ordinary skill can implement a predictable variation, Section 103 likely bars its patentability.” Changing a conventional seven foot high overhead garage door from a four panel section door to a three panel section door is nothing more than a predictable variation sparked by design incentives in the hope that a new look to the door would result in increased sales.

What it looks like here is that the driver for the innovation really was a need for a new ornamental design – motivating PHOSITA to create the obvious variation.

In our minds, this is an example of market demand driving a design trend, and the Supreme Court in KSR warned against granting patent protection to advances such as this that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation . . . .

We further find that market pressure existed in the garage door industry to create a new design trend by updating the look of garage doors to spur additional sales in the industry.

In addition to allowing ornamental design needs to serve as the motivator to try a new design, the Board did not require any tight nexus between the design motivation and the new design (other than the need for a new design).

I highlight the lax approach on obviousness to contrast the Board’s strict approach when considering objective or secondary factors of nonobviousness.

Nexus: The bulk of the Jellá opinion is spent repeatedly shooting down the applicant’s arguments on secondary considerations of non-obviousness and the accompanying declarations. The most often repeated point was that any objective evidence must have a clear nexus with the invention as claimed.

“To be given substantial weight in the determination of obviousness or non-obviousness, evidence of secondary considerations must be relevant to the subject matter as claimed, and therefore the examiner must determine whether there is a nexus between the merits of the claimed invention and the evidence of secondary considerations.”

The nexus requirement include being “commensurate in scope with the claims.”

Ornamental Features in Utility Patents: Additionally, the ornamentality or striking good looks of a design cannot be used as evidence of nonobviousness. Here, the BPAI rejected a declaration discussing the “unique” look of the garage door based on a desire to avoid overlap with design patent law: “Were we to allow secondary considerations of non-obviousness to be based on the industry’s reaction to the ornamental appearance of the claimed invention, we would be blurring the distinction between design and utility patent protection. Objective evidence of secondary considerations of non-obviousness should be tied to the functional aspects of the claimed invention for a utility patent application.” Oddly enough, the BPAI did allow the PTO to use the ornamental features to prove a “market pressure” — finding that “market pressure existed in the garage door industry to create a new design trend by updating the look [and appearance] of garage doors to spur additional sales in the industry. …  In our minds, this is an example of market demand driving a design trend, and the Supreme Court in KSR warned against granting patent protection to advances such as this that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation.”

Rejection Affirmed.

In re Ferguson: Patentable Subject Matter

In re Ferguson (Fed. Cir. 2009)

Scott Harris has been discussed several times on Patently-O. Harris is a former Fish & Richardson partner. Fish handles the most patent litigation of any firm in the country. In addition to being a patent attorney, Harris is an inventor. He has contracted with the plaintiffs firm Niro Scavone in several actions to enforce patents against Google and other companies. Harris is one of the named inventors of the Ferguson application and he handled the [futile] appeal.

The claimed invention focuses on a “method of marketing a product” and a “paradigm for marketing software.” These claims focus on methods and structures for operating a business.

Methods Under Bilski: Claim 1 reads as follows:

A method of marketing a product, comprising:

developing a shared marketing force, said shared marketing force including at least marketing channels, which enable marketing a number of related products;

using said shared marketing force to market a plurality of different products that are made by a plurality of different autonomous producing company, so that different autonomous companies, having different ownerships, respectively produce said related products;

obtaining a share of total profits from each of said plurality of different autonomous producing companies in return for said using; and

obtaining an exclusive right to market each of said plurality of products in return for said using.

Under Bilski, this case is open and shut. The claim is not even arguably tied to a machine — especially under the Nuijten construction of machine to be a “concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices [including] every mechanical device or combination of mechanical powers and devices to perform some function and produce a certain effect or result.” (Quoting Burr v. Duryee, 68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 531, 570 (1863)). Thus, the 1863 touchability definition of machine appears to hold weight. On the second Bilski prong, the claim does not require transformation of any article into a different state or thing. The only transformation is that of legal rights and organizational relationships that were explicitly excluded in the Bilski decision: “transformations or manipulations simply of public or private legal obligations or relationships, business risks, or other such abstractions cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances, and they are not representative of physical objects or substances.”

Harris asked the court to consider a different test of patentable subject matter: “Does the claimed subject matter require that the product or process has more than a scintilla of interaction with the real world in a specific way?” The CAFC panel rejected that proposal primarily based on the precedential value of Bilski: “In light of this court’s clear statements that the “sole,” “definitive,” “applicable,” “governing,” and “proper” test for a process claim under § 101 is the Supreme Court’s machine-or-transformation test, see Bilski, passim, we are reluctant to consider Applicants’ proposed test.” The court went on to determine that the “scintilla” test would create too much ambiguity as well.

Non Method Claims: The application also included claims directed to a “paradigm for marketing software” made up of a marketing company that markets software in return for a contingent share of income. Although “instructive,” the Federal Circuit did not directly follow Bilski. Rather, the court looked to determine whether the claimed paradigm fit within one of the four statutory classes listed in Section 101:

Inventions Patentable: “… any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof…”

In a gentle Koan, the Court stated that it “need not resolve the particular class of statutory subject matter into which Applicants’ paradigm claims fall, [however], the claims must satisfy at least one category.” In fact, the court did attempt to resolve the particular class, but was unable to fit the paradigm claim into any of the four.

Applicants’ paradigm claims are not directed to processes, as “no act or series of acts” is required. Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1355. Applicants do not argue otherwise. Applicants’ marketing company paradigm is also not a manufacture, because although a marketing company may own or produce tangible articles or commodities, it clearly cannot itself be an “‘article[]’ resulting from the process of manufacture.” Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1356. Again, Applicants do not argue otherwise. And Applicants’ marketing company paradigm is certainly not a composition of matter. Applicants do not argue otherwise.  

Again applying the touchability notion of machine, the Court also rejected the notion that the company paradigm could be a machine:

Applicants do assert, however, that “[a] company is a physical thing, and as such analogous to a machine.” But the paradigm claims do not recite “a concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices,” Nuijtent, and as Applicants conceded during oral argument, “you cannot touch the company.”

Ending in a flourish, the court found that in fact, the Ferguson paradigm claims are “drawn quite literally to the paradigmatic abstract idea.” (quoting Warmerdam).

Judge Newman offers a poignant concurring opinion.  

Waiving Arguments at the Board of Patent Appeals

PatentLawPic692Pivonka v. Axelrod (Fed. Cir. 2009)(non-precedential)

In 2003, Axelrod asked the PTO to declare an interference against Pivonka’s patent which had issued the year prior. (Pat. No. 6,408,797). During the interference, the BPAI found Pivonka’s collapsible pet carrier claims to be unpatentable as obvious. [Link] On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed.

In reviewing a BPAI obviousness rejection, the Federal Circuit looks for “substantial evidence” to support any factual determinations, but reviews the ultimate question of obviousness de novo.

Here Pivonka pointed to three potential errors: (1) improperly saying that the invention has a “barn-like structure;” (2) failing to consider the patented claims individually; and (3) failing to appreciate the structural differences and functional benefits provided by the claimed invention as compared to the prior art.

The Federal Circuit dismissed these concerns in turn: (1) the reference to the barn was merely shorthand and not reversible error; (2) the applicant waived any right to have claims 2–9 considered separately by failing to make arguments on those claims earlier; and (3) the Board’s conclusion of obviousness was correct.

“Under KSR International Co. v. Teleflex, Inc. “[t]he combination of familiar elements according to known methods is likely to be obvious when it does no more than yield predictable results.” 550 U.S. 398, 1739 (2007). According to Dr. Shina’s unrebutted affidavit [Axelrod’s Expert], both the structural benefits and the way in which to build the container claimed by Pivonka were readily apparent to a person of ordinary skill in the art. Accordingly, we find no error in the Board’s conclusion that claims 1-9 are obvious.”

The Court also rejected an argument of improper procedure based on Pivonka’s waiver of the issue before the BPAI. One important take-away from this case is that the Federal Circuit generally treats the BPAI as it would a lower court in the sense that an issue must first be raised with the BPAI in order to be ripe for appeal to the Federal Circuit. If the issue is not raised at the lower level, then any appeal will be deemed waived.

Although not directly related, I enjoyed the following recent anonymous comment to another post:

Whoever said "necessity is the mother of invention" was wrong. According to KSR, "necessity is the mother of obviousness."

Underlying the interference is a patent infringement case between Pivonka and TFH Publications (Axelrod’s assignee). That case is also on appeal but will be heard by a different panel. Interestingly, after this favorable decision, TFH requested that the case be reassigned to the Axelrod panel. The Federal Circuit denied that motion. [Link]

Law Firms That Appeal

A patent applicant has several options after receiving a final rejection from a patent examiner. “After final” practice is a matter of strategy, tactics, and art. The primary approaches are (1) abandon the application; (2) appeal to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI); (3) file a request for continued examination (RCE) arguing against the rejection; or (4) concede scope and narrow the application (probably through an RCE). Each of these approaches differs in cost, timing, and likelihood of success. Of course, success may depend upon whether broad claims are important. And, in the background, applicants know that alternate claims can later be pursued in continuation applications (for a fee).

BPAI Appeals are generally thought to have a higher up-front cost – both in terms of PTO fees and attorney costs. However, if you win, appeals have the benefit of dramatically changing the course of the examination. Often, an applicant’s successful appeal results in an issued patent soon thereafter.

In this study, I looked at law firms involved in ex parte appeals to the BPAI that were decided in the calendar year 2008. Of the 4000+ decisions, only about 75% of the decisions mentioned the law firm name in the case caption. Using those names, I constructed the following table of the firms associated with the most decisions during 2008. It is interesting to compare Oblon Spivak and Sughrue Mion – both firms handle over 3000 patents each year – many of them involving electronics owned by non-US entities. Oblon, however, appears to have taken the strategy of appealing while Sughrue may be using alternate strategies. Foley & Lardner is regularly listed in the top-ten firms in terms of the number of patent grants – however, that firm does not make the list of having the most appeal decisions.

Some words of caution on the numbers game: (1) These are ordinarily dominated by lower cost electronics and software patents. (2) Some clients request that docketing go through their office – in those cases, the firm name would not show up here. (3) Focusing on appeals, it may be that some firms not on the list actually filed more appeal briefs. It turns out that in most cases, examiners withdraw their final rejections in the face of a high quality appeal brief.

2008 Rank

Law Firm

Number of BPAI Decisions

Primary Location





































































































BPAI Again Rejects System Claims under Bilski

Ex parte Atkins (BPAI 2009)

The BPAI has again raised the issue of Post-Bilski patentable subject matter sua sponte. Like most claims challenged under Section101, Atkins claims also have serious nonobvousness and indefiniteness problems.

Atkins claims a method of “converting a unidirectional domain name to a bidirectional domain name.” In reviewing the claim under Bilski, the BPAI noted that the claims do not “recite any machine or apparatus or call for transforming an article into a different state or thing. A domain name is simply a series of characters representing the address of a resource, such as a server, on the World Wide Web. All of the steps are data manipulation steps.”

Atkins also claims a parallel “system” for converting the domain name. The BPAI rejected the system claims under Bilski since “those claims encompass any and all structures for performing the recited functions. As a result, [the system claims] are at least as broad as method claims … which we have determined recite patent ineligible subject matter under Bilski.”

The BPAI and the Machine or Transformation test of Bilski

In three recent cases, the BPAI has continued its trend of applying the Federal Circuit’s en banc Bilski decision to reject software-style method claims as lacking patentable subject matter. The BPAI is not asserting that software is unpatentable — the Board is simply failing to find ties to a particular machine; transformation of a physical object; or transformation of articles “representative of physical objects.” In two of the cases, the BPAI applied its power to issue new grounds of rejection — raising the Section 101 issue sua sponte.

In ex parte Gutta (BPAI 2009), Gutta (Philips) claimed a “computerized method performed by a data processor.” The claims include elements such as “a history;” “a plurality of clusters;” a “target user;” and “preferences of a third party.” The final step in the method involved “displaying” a score. In Bilski, the Federal Circuit found that the transformation of data into a visual depiction could render a claimed method patentable. Here, however, the generically worded step was merely “post-solution activity [insufficient] to impart patentability to a claim involving the solving of a mathematical algorithm.”

In ex parte Barnes (BPAI 2009), Barnes (Landmark Graphics) claimed a “fault identification method” that obtains seismic data and determines “a planarity value for discontinuities” in each “analysis window” in the seismic data. In this case, the BPAI entered a new ground of rejection under Section 101. The BPAI recognized that the claim called for both gathering and analyzing data, but those steps – without explicit limitations of how they are done – are insufficient to render the claim patentable.

In ex parte Becker (BPAI 2009), Becker and his fourteen co-inventors (Siemens) claimed a “method for maintaining a user profile.” As in Barnes, the BPAI entered a new ground of rejection under Section 101 — finding again that the method claims failed to satisfy the machine or transformation test.

Read the Opinions

Note: This was originally posted on Jan 26, but was inadvertently un-published. I this version is slightly modified to take-into account an insightful comment regarding the transformation of data into a visual depiction.

The Soaring Rate of BPAI Appeals

In two earlier posts, I discussed the BPAI reversal rate (link) and the reopening of prosecution after a reversal (link). In the reversal rate, I also looked at the historic jump in the absolute number of BPAI appeals filed. In FY2008 (ending Sept 30, 2008), the BPAI received over 6,000 ex parte appeals– concluding two consecutive years of over 35% annual growth rate in appeal filings.

Although dramatic, the reported filing increases pale in comparison to those seen in the past four months. The BPAI reports that in the period of Sept-Dec 2008, it received an average of 954 ex parte appeal cases per month. That value is well more than double the monthly average for the same span in 2007.

At this rate, the number of BPAI appeals would easily reach 10,000 in FY2009.

The planned BPAI rule changes may explain at least part of the sudden jump. In a recent presentation, William Smith of Woodcock Washburn stated that the new rules are “onerous and will significantly increase the cost of preparing an Appeal Brief.” [Link]. I have spoken with several patent attorneys who intentionally filed appeal briefs early in order to beat the December 10 deadline. That deadline has now been postponed. If the rules truly are onerous, then we may see a drop in appeals once they become effective.

BPAI Appeal Statistics: The Plummeting Reversal Rate

In an earlier post, I examined what happens to patent applications after the BPAI reverses an examiner rejection. [LINK] This next post looks at the BPAI reversal rate itself. Here, I define the reversal rate as the percentage of cases where the Examiner rejections are completely reversed (as opposed to partial reversals).

Over the past several years, the BPAI reversal rate has dropped dramatically. From FY1999-FY2005, the reversal rate remained relatively steady between 35% and 40%. Then, in FY2006 we began to see a smaller proportion of reversals. By the first two months of FY2009, the reversal rate had dropped to 20%. Part of the drop is likely attributable to new filtering mechanisms that keep low-quality rejections from reaching the Board. The pre-appeal brief conference program started in 2005 and allows a patent applicant to request an internal review of the examiner’s final rejection at the Tech Center (TC) level before an appeal brief is filed. Even if no pre-appeal brief conference request is made, the examiner’s case for a rejection is usually reviewed at the TC level before the examiner is allowed to file a responsive brief.

In recent years, these filters have operated to weed-out 80% of the cases where an appeal brief or pre-appeal brief conference request had been filed. Prior to implementation of these filters, the majority of appeal briefs led to BPAI decisions. [See Katznelson, Slide 15]

When the low quality rejections are eliminated from consideration, we should expect that the BPAI reversal rate would drop – as it has. The BPAI is no longer seeing many of the easy reversal cases where the examiner made a clear legal error. Rather, today’s cases before the board tend to be more focused on arguable issues involving obviousness, enablement, and patentable subject matter.

The filters only tell part of the story, and the reversal rate masks the fact that – in absolute numbers – the Board is reversing more cases than ever. Over this same period, the number of appeals filed has increased dramatically. And, although the BPAI has increased its throughput, the backlog has grown five-fold since 2005. These pendency pressures give the Board an incentive to make appeals less hospitable – as we saw with the new (not-yet-final) BPAI appeal rules.


What Happens After the BPAI Reverses an Examiner Rejection

Even after the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI) reverses an examiner’s rejection, the case is returned to the same examiner to ensure that the application is in condition for allowance. 37 CFR 41.54. At that point, the examiner is not allowed to make another search for prior art. However, the examiner may reopen prosecution and enter a new grounds for rejection “[i]f the examiner has specific knowledge of the existence of a particular reference or references which indicate nonpatentability of any of the appealed claims.” MPEP §1214.04. According to the MPEP, reopening prosecution requires written approval of the Technology Center Director.

To get a sense of how this post-reversal process operates in practice, I looked at a set of 149 decisions from 2006 where the BPAI had reversed examiner rejections. In 80% of cases, the examiner accepted the BPAI decision and did not re-open prosecution. In these cases, a patent generally issued within nine-months of the BPAI decision (median of six months) unless the applicant caused some delay. A typical delay is seen in IBM’s Application No. 10/047,116. After winning an appeal on nonobviousness grounds and receiving a notice of allowance, IBM failed to pay the issue fee in a timely fashion. The patent finally issued after the PTO granted a petition to revive.

In the remaining 20% of the reversals, the PTO re-opened prosecution by offering new grounds for rejection. Occasionally the new grounds are suggested by the BPAI but more often they come from the examiner and fall under §101, §103, or §112. The current status of those re-opened cases from my 2006 sample can roughly be broken into thirds: a third of the cases were eventually patented despite the new rejection; a third of the cases are still pending; and a third of the cases were abandoned after the PTO continued to press its case. A handful of the pending cases are on their way to the BPAI for a second go-round.


  • One PTO insider takes issue with my statement that after being reversed “the examiner is not allowed to make another search for prior art.” The MPEP §1214.04 states that “[t]he examiner should never regard such a reversal as a challenge to make a new search to uncover other and better references.” According to the insider, that statement is not a prohibition on making a new search, but only a “discouragement.” In practice, new searches are conducted and, if new art is found the PTO will reopen prosecution.

BPAI: Under §102(e), Provisional Application Considered Prior Art as of its Filing Date.

Ex parte Yamaguchi (BPAI 2008)(Precedential Opinion)

In prosecution, the Examiner cited the Narayanan reference against a Texas Instruments patent application filed by Yamaguchi. The rejection identified Narayanan as prior art under 35 U.S.C. § 102(e). The issue on appeal to the BPAI was whether the Narayanan reference can be considered 102(e) prior art as of the filing date of its provisional application.

Section 102(e) allows for submarine prior art – these are typically pending US patent applications that, when published or patented, suddenly become prior art as of their filing date. The statute allows that “[a] person shall be entitled to a patent unless . . .the invention was described in . . .a patent granted on an application for patent by another filed in the United States before the invention by the applicant for patent.. . .” 35 U.S.C. § 102(e).

102(e) Provisional: The issue here is whether Narayanan’s provisional application can be used in 102(e) analysis. The expanded BPAI panel agreed with the examiner that the 102(e) prior art date does reach-back to the date of provisional filing. This result is based on their analysis of 35 U.S.C. § 111(b). Section 111(b) requires that “provisions of this title relating to applications for patent shall apply to provisional applications for patent.”

“Based on this express intent to apply the provisions of Title 35 relating to “applications for patent” to provisional applications (except for four enumerated sections noted in §111(b)(8)), a provisional application can therefore be reasonably considered an “application for patent” within the meaning of §102(e). The plain meaning of these provisions of Title 35 as noted above is outlined in MPEP 2136.03(111) for establishing the critical reference date under §102(e) of a U.S. patent or U.S. application publication that is entitled to the benefit of the filing date of a provisional application under §119(e). Based on the statutory scheme of Title 35, we hold that Appellants have not shown harmful error in the rejections on appeal.”

This holding is in tension with the controlling precedent of In re Wertheim, 646 F.2d 527 (CCPA 1981). In Wertheim, the CCPA held that for a continuation-in-part application, the parent’s filing date may serve as a §102(e) date, but only if the parent contains full §§120 and 112 support for the disclosure.

In this case the Examiner found that the Narayanan provisional application fully supported the eventual publication – and thus that the 102(e) date for narayanan was the filing date of the provisional. The applicant was unable to disprove these findings and the BPAI affirmed the rejection.

Recent BPAI Decisions

  • Chief Judge FlemmingPrecedential:
  • Ex parte Ghuman, Appeal No. 2008-1175 (BPAI May 1, 2008)(rejected claims that are not appealed are considered withdrawn and subject to cancellation by examiner).
  • Ex parte Fu, Appeal No. 2008-0601, 2008 WL 867826 (BPAI March 31, 2008) (applying KSR to find it obvious to substitute one species for its genus where the genus contains a limited number of species).
  • Ex Parte Nehls, Appeal No. 2007-1823, 2008 WL 258370 (BPAI January 28, 2008) (“substantial” and “specific” utility).
  • Ex parte Letts, Appeal No. 2007-1392, 2008 WL 275515 (BPAI January 31, 2008) (applicant may not conditionally withdraw a claim on appeal).
  • Informative:
    • Ex parte Wasynczuk (BPAI June 2, 2008) (Computer method claims were patentable subject matter because they “recite a process that employs one of the other statutory categories.” On the other hand, the “computer implemented system” claims were not patentable subject matter because they did not recite a “particular machine implementation”.)
    • Ex parte Langemyr (BPAI May 28. 2008) (mathematical manipulations of data do not become eligible subject matter even when performed on a computer and outputted to a display).
    • Ex parte Kim (BPAI May 29, 2008) (indefiniteness rejection affirmed; PTO will not assume a particular meaning of claim terms without some factual or rational basis).

    Obvious to Try? BIO Challenges Ex Parte Kubin

    In re Kubin (Fed. Cir. 2008)

    Immunex (a subsidiary of Amgen) is hoping to patent its a DNA sequence coding for a NK (Natural Killer) cell regulator protein. The BPAI rejected the “nucleic acid molecule” claim — finding it obvious over the prior art. [BPAI Decision]. This decision is one of only three precedential BPAI decisions in 2007.

    Just looking at the claimed sequence, it would not seem obvious — its structure is not overly similar to other regulator proteins, and the unpredictable nature of protein folding makes it virtually impossible to predict whether a particular sequence would code for an appropriate protein.

    Despite the structural uniqueness, the BPAI found the claim obvious because it could have been isolated and verified simply by following conventional laboratory techniques — thus, making it obvious to try.

    Although the CAFC has previously warned the BPAI away from using “obvious to try” analysis in its 1995 In re Deuel case. There, the appellate court held that obviousness analysis of a structure should focus on the structure itself as compared to prior art structures.

    In Kubin, the BPAI rejected Deuel as limited by the Supreme Court’s KSR decision. That case focused on combination claims, but included the stray quote that “the fact that a combination was obvious to try might show that it was obvious under Section 103.”

    Here, the BPAI argued, the inventor wanted to isolate the NK Regulator and simply used known methods to do so. “Thus, isolating NAIL cDNA was ‘the product not of innovation but of ordinary skill and common sense.’” (again quoting KSR).

    The case is now on appeal at the the CAFC. On June 10, the Biotechnology Industry Organization filed an amicus brief asking the court to cabin in the scope of KSR and hold that its obvious to try dicta does not abrogate the Deuel standard. Briefing is ongoing and a decision is not expected until the end of the year.

    • Download kubin.amicus.pdf
    • The PTO’s Obviousness Guidelines have the following rules for making an obviousness rejection based on the obvious to try reasoning:
      • (1) a finding that at the time of the invention, there had been a recognized problem or need in the art, which may include a design need or market pressure to solve a problem;
      • (2) a finding that there had been a finite number of identified, predictable potential solutions to the recognized need or problem;
      • (3) a finding that one of ordinary skill in the art could have pursued the known potential solutions with a reasonable expectation of success; and
      • (4) whatever additional findings based on the Graham factual inquiries may be necessary, in view of the facts of the case under consideration, to explain a conclusion of obviousness.The BPAI decision is notable for a few reasons, including the following two: (1) It was written by Nancy Linck, former PTO Solicitor, Newman law clerk, & PhD Chemist. Soon after authoring the decision, Linck left the firm to join the Rothwell Figg firm. (2) It is a unanimous opinion.
  • Thanks to Hal Wegner for providing a copy of the brief which his firm filed on behalf of BIO.
  • (more…)

    Interview Before The Examination (“First Action Interview Pilot Program”)

    USPTOBy my count, well over eighty percent of patent applications are initially rejected by the PTO. Yet, most applications eventually result in an issued patent.  Many of the rejected patents are amended slightly. It is unclear, however, if those amendments are really made to overcome prior art or rather offered as negotiation chips to the examiner in order to obtain the patent as quickly and cheaply as possible.  The truth is that a non-trivial number of initial rejections might be termed “off course” because they miss the true nature of the invention. These off course rejections end up extending prosecution, increasing the PTO backlog, and causing endless patent attorney frustration.

    In the hope of avoiding the problem of potentially off-course rejections, the PTO has created a new pilot program to allow an applicant to discuss the claims with the examiner before an initial rejection is issued (but after the examiner’s prior art search). Of course, under the current rules, pre-examination interviews are already allowed under MPEP 713.02 at the discretion of the Examiner.  This pilot program adds to the rules by forcing the Examiner to prepare a pre-examination search (upon request) and also meet for an interview.  The idea here is to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the invention and hopefully quickly issue patents for state of the art inventions.

    The pilot program is limited to data processing inventions (Class 707 & 709) that have been pending for a couple of years. Likewise, a qualified application may only have three independent and twenty dependent claims. If successful, it may spread to art units with high-pendency.

    Thoughts on Interviews: Over the last few years, in-person interviews at the PTO have lost much of their charm. In the past, a savvy attorney coupled with a tech-whiz inventor could convincingly elaborate the invention — without having the actual interview on record. After a tidy noncommittal “interview summary,” the case would issue.  As the record has become more important, Patent Office practice has also shifted toward examiners taking a harder post-interview look and often “renegotiating” the result. Still, interviews are useful for a patent applicant – just not as useful as they used to be.

    My hope for this pre-examination interview is that it can create a communication link to help the PTO better understand the invention before crystallizing a particular position.  The PTO’s approach with the pilot is quite thoughtful because it requires the Examiner to prepare (by conducting a prior art search). This helps ensure that both sides will be ready to go when the interview begins.


    Patentee has no “Presumption of Priority” Unless Specifically Adjudged by the PTO During Prosecution

    ScreenShot017PowerOasis v. T-Mobile (Fed. Cir. 2008)

    The district court granted summary judgment to T-Mobile — finding the PowerOasis cell-phone vending machine patents invalid.

    The patent family history includes a continuation-in-part (CIP) preceded by a continuation and an original utility patent application. Based on the prior art date, the issue boiled down to whether the asserted patents could claim priority through the CIP to the original application.

    Patentee Bears Burden of Proving Priority. Despite the statutory presumption of validity, the CAFC first held that the patentee normally has the burden of proving priority. The exception is when the PTO considers the issue of priority during prosecution.  In drafting the opinion, Judge Moore shifted the decision from a question of validity (where a presumption lies) to a question of effective filing date (where there is no statutory presumption). “When neither the PTO nor the Board has previously considered priority, there is simply no reason to presume that claims in a CIP application are entitled to the effective filing date of an earlier filed application.”

    Interestingly, this decision falls runs parallel to Microsoft’s recent petition for certiorari in the z4 case.

    Written Description: To claim priority to the original application date, that original application must “convey with reasonable clarity to those skilled in the art, as of the filing date sought, [that the inventor] was in possession of the [claimed] invention.” (Quoting Vas-Cath). Here, the original application disclosed a “display” and “user interface” while the asserted patent claimed a “customer interface.” Although these terms appear quite close, the CIP had added specific examples of a laptop customer interface while the original application only included interface embodiments attached to the vending machine.  This makes a difference because the accused device uses a laptop and the patentee asked for a construction of the term that would include the laptop interface.

    Holding: “Because none of this support was present in the Original Application and because the Original Application did not disclose a customer interface apart from the vending machine, the asserted claims are only entitled to the 2000 CIP Application.” 


    Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI)

    Eight Reasons: I am undergoing a project to better understand the role of the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI).  There are several reasons why BPAI is now receiving more limelight than ever. Here are eight such reasons: (1) every proposed patent reform bill includes an expanded role for a patent administrative court, such as the BPAI; (2) as various technology centers make patents more difficult to obtain, more cases are appealed to the administrative court; (3) under the proposed rule changes to limit continuation applications, more cases will likely be appealed; (4) as the value of patent rights continue to grow, important cases will continue to be challenged; (5) the publication of patent applications means that BPAI decisions can now also be immediately published; (6) the current large batch of examiners without much experience requires a serious check on potential abuses of naiveté; (7) under Judge Fleming, the BPAI has begun to open up to more public input and scrutiny; and (8) BPAI decisions are now available via Google search and Westlaw search.

    BPAI is a Busy Court: It is important to recognize that the BPAI is deciding 3,500 cases every year. Thousands more are ‘settled’ prior to a BPAI decision either because the patent examiner withdrew a rejection (and likely re-opened prosecution) or the patent applicant filed a continuing application or abandoned the case. The BPAI usually sits in three-member panels, although there are occasionally ‘stacked’ panels for important cases such as Lundgren or Bilski.  In my one-year sample, over seventy different Administrative Patent Judges (APJs) authored opinions. 

    As part of my initial study, this week, I created a database of information on recent BPAI decisions and coded them by issues discussed.  My database is derived from decisions available on Westlaw. Consequently, it is missing some decisions. In particular, Westlaw decisions do not include appeals associated with unpublished patent applications.

    The table below looks at board decisions for each technology center. The relative numbers are interesting — showing a low affirmance rate for rejection of business method cases (TC 3600) and a high affirmance rate for chemistry cases (TC 1700). The BPAI offers its own calculation of these numbers based on all of its decisions that are roughly parallel. [LINK] ScreenShot037
    (Note, the table does not add-up to 100% because I excluded decisions to remand and deny rehearing).

    Independence of the BPAI: One serious question about the competence of an internal patent appeal board is whether that body can act independently from the examining corps. Most of the BPAI judges are former examiners and they all work for the PTO Director. Although not conclusive, the above numbers give me some cause for hope that the BPAI does act independently. Over the past several years, many of the art units of TC 3600 has been notoriously difficult on applicants (especially e-commerce and business method groups). The BPAI’s low affirmance of rejections from that technology center may indicate that the Board has taken an independent stand against overzealous rejection practice.  There are many other explanations, including some selection bias or difference in quality of attorneys. In addition, there is a skew of judges — i.e., Judges with a technical background related to a particular technology center are more likely to judge cases from that technology center. The BPAI rightfully does this to ensure that every case has at least one administrative patent judge (APJ) who is prepared to understand the technology at issue.

    Issues on Appeal: Far and away the most decided issue is that of nonobviousness. Almost 80% of decisions involved a discussion of nonobviousness and 30 U.S.C. 103(a).  Unfortunately for patent applicants, nonobviousness decisions were also the most difficult for applicants to win. In my study, decisions involving Section 103(a) were affirmed 63% of the time; decisions involving anticipation under Section 102 were affirmed 55% of the time; and decisions involving Section 112 were affirmed 52% of the time. As more issues are added to an appeal, the chance of affirmance goes down, and the chance of a split (reverse-in-part) decision goes up.

    As might be expected, split decisions tend to be longer than others: 4500 words for split decision vs. 3500 words other decisions.  If a short decision arrives at your desk, you may assume it is a remand.


    Paper Posted to Non-Indexed FTP Site Not 102(b) Prior Art

    Internet Gateway TechnologySRI Int’l v. Internet Security Systems (Fed. Cir. 2008).

    In Delaware federal court, SRI accused ISS of infringing four  patents relating live traffic analysis of computer network gateways.  On summary judgment, Judge Sue Robinson held the patents invalid — anticipated by SRI’s own prior work.

    In a split panel, the Federal Circuit vacated — finding a lack of evidence that SRI’s prior publication was sufficiently publicly available more than one year before the patent applications were filed.

    Event History:

    • Aug 1, 1997 — “Live Traffic” paper e-mailed to a conference chair and posted the paper on an accessible SRI FTP site as a “backup” for the conference chair. Paper remained on the FTP site for seven days.
    • Nov 10, 1997 — SRI displays the paper on its website.
    • Nov 9, 1998 — SRI files its patent application.

    Although 35 USC 102(b) contains no explicitly requirement of ‘public accessiblity’ of a prior printed publication, such accessibility has long been required and fills-out the definition of the term ‘publication.’

    In the 2006 Bruckelmyer case, the CAFC noted that public accessibility could be satisfied if a person who is “interested and ordinarily skilled in the subject matter” could locate the publication using “reasonable diligence.”  Otherwise hidden publications can often be considered accessible if they are somehow indexed or cataloged by subject.

    In Bruckelmyer, the court found that an unpublished Canadian patent document was sufficiently accessible because it was related to an on-point issued patent and could be retrieved at the Canadian patent office.

    In this case, the court found insufficient evidence to rule on summary judgment. The FTP server was publicly accessible. However, it was uncataloged and would have been difficult to search. Additionally, only one non-SRI person (the conference chair) was shown to have knowledge of the paper on the FTP site.

    Thus, the court vacated summary judgment for further development of the facts.

    Judge Moore dissented — arguing forcefully that the facts showed public accessibility of the FTP site. (For instance, the FTP site had been used previously and was linked-to from over 70 Google Group posts). Procedurally, Judge Moore also faulted SRI for failing to present any facts on its side (as opposed to attorney argument). Under Rule 56, an opposing party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.”

    Continued Vitiation of The Doctrine of Equivalents

    Wleklinski (dba Comfort Strapp) v. Targus (Fed. Cir. 2007) (Non-Precedential).

    PatentLawPic128In March, 2007, the Central District of California dismissed Comfort Strapp’s complaint on summary judgment — finding no proof of infringement.  Comfort Strapp’s patent relates to a comfortable shoulder strap for luggage.

    The fight was over the construction of an “auxiliary strap means” limitation that requires the strap’s end sections be “made of a relatively non-stretchable material” and the strap’s center section be “made of [stretchable] material.”  Because the Targus auxiliary strap was made of a single material, the CAFC agreed that it could not literally infringe.

    Doctrine of Equivalents: Accused products that exhibit only ‘insubstantial differences’ from the claimed patent may also be considered infringing under the doctrine of equivalents. (DOE). However, the DOE cannot apply where it would vitiate a claim limitation.

    Here, the Federal Circuit panel agreed that as a matter of law, the doctrine of equivalents does not allow a claimed two-material strap to encompass a strap made of only one material. According to the appellate panel, such a reading would be “the fundamental opposite of the claimed invention.” Citing Freedman Seating.

    Notes: Although the court’s trend to limit the doctrine of equivalents began well before the Supreme Court’s KSR ruling. The bulked-up nonobviousness test naturally reduces the scope of the doctrine of equivalents as the DOE cannot extend to cover variations that would have been obvious at the time of patenting.

    How long does a BPAI appeal take?

    PatentLawPic037In the first two weeks of September 2007, the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences released over one hundred opinions. I looked at the file wrapper histories of thirty of these recent BPAI decisions to get some picture of the timing of BPAI appeals.

    On average it took just under 18 months (542 days) from the filing of the appeal brief until a decision was reached by the BPAI.  The mean hides a wide range of delay: From a minimum of 9 1/2 months to a maximum of 44 months. (Standard Deviation 255). 

    Most of the time delay is not attributable directly to the BPAI. Rather, most of the delay occurs between the date that the appeal is filed and the date that the case is submitted to the BPAI.  On average, it took about 11 months (328 days) to ‘complete briefing.’ Typically, that time period involves the applicant’s brief; followed by an examiner’s answer; and finally a reply brief. Once the case is submitted to the BPAI, the average decision time was seven months (214 days).

    If you win an appeal, the Examiner may reopen prosecution with an additional rejection, although the more common approach is to issue a notice of allowance.

    Based on this information, you can advise clients that an appeal – pushed through to the end – takes an average of 18 months, but that there is a wide variance.  As I noted earlier in 2007, only fewer than of appeals are pushed-through to the end. [Link].  In many cases, Examiners withdraw rejections or applicants file RCE’s with new claims. These calculations also do not include time delays associated with BPAI rejections for improper appeal brief form. Instead, I only began counting once a ‘proper’ brief was filed. In an earlier study, I showed that approximately 25% of appeal briefs are rejected on procedural grounds as either defective or incomplete. [Link].

    The prosecution history of a patent application typically includes at least two substantive rejections prior to the appeal brief. In this sample, the average application had been in process for over three years (39 months) before the appeal brief was filed. 

    As with essentially every other area of patent law, we can expect that BPAI timing and results will vary by technology area.


    Judge Moore Opinions: Short, Focused, and To-The-Point

    PatentlyO2006018In re Hays (Fed. Cir. 2006) (Nonprecedential)

    New Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Moore’s first opinion is likely to be predictive of her future work — short, focused, and to-the-point. 

    This case involves a pretty neat invention of a tissue holder for an automobile visor. The BPAI had rejected the claims as anticipated, but the PTO later conceded that the cited reference (relating to a golf-tee holder that clips to a lapel) was not anticipatory.

    The PTO is fully expected to present a new grounds of rejection.  In all likelihood, the patent will never issue because another round of appeal would be prohibitively expensive for this type of invention.

    Vacated and Remanded.

    • This does not really count as Judge Moore’s first opinion because it is a non-precedential opinion. In a few weeks, we’ll get the real one.